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The Development of Complex Societies in Eastern North America: The Roles of Feasting, Famine, and Fighting

  • David G. Anderson
  • Robert Cook
Chapter
Part of the Studies in Human Ecology and Adaptation book series (STHE, volume 8)

Abstract

The development of social complexity in Eastern North America occurred within a diverse array of historical trajectories, and was shaped by many factors, of which feasting, famine, and fighting played important roles. When initial settlement took place is unknown, but sites and artifacts of the Clovis culture occur widely by ca. 13,000 cal year BP. Cemeteries with hypertrophic artifacts appear soon thereafter in the Dalton culture of the Central Mississippi Valley, the first of many archaeological cultures characterized by evidence for periodic aggregation, elaborate ceremony, feasting behavior, and monumentality. While these behaviors were intermittent early on, they become widespread after ca. 6000 cal year BP. Famines, or extended periods of subsistence resource shortfall, were likely an ever present concern, but skeletal evidence for major episodes of dietary-induced stress does not appear until the Middle Holocene and after, although prior to that time skeletal samples are small. Evidence for fighting or conflict between groups also dates to the Middle Holocene and after, reaching endemic proportions during some periods and much reduced during others, patterning that appears tied to the stability of food resources, the distribution, and packing of people on the landscape, and the importance of warfare as a means of enhancing prestige or achieving political domination. While the independent domestication of indigenous plant species occurred in the later Holocene, and exogenous species like maize were adopted soon after, in many areas wild resources continued to dominate subsistence as well as use in social display and feasting, and were stored to reduce the likelihood of famine. Variation in rainfall patterns measured using tree ring records indicates late prehistoric and contact period societies heavily dependent upon agriculture were particularly vulnerable to drought. Formalized warfare on a large-scale resulting in the destruction of whole communities is documented in the centuries immediately before Contact, a period characterized by the widespread occurrence of fortifications and defensive settlement postures, and skeletons exhibiting weapons trauma. Changes observed in the Fort Ancient culture illustrate how these developments played out in the upper Midwest, highlighting the importance of examining local sequences when assessing the importance of specific factors.

Keywords

Fort Ancient Mississippian Archaic Eastern woodlands Prehistoric warfare Buffer zones Drought Monumentality Fortifications 

Notes

Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Drs. Rick Chacon and Rubén G. Mendoza for inviting us to participate in the Symposium at the 2014 Society for American Archaeology meetings that led to this chapter, and for their patience in awaiting submission. Minor portions of this argument appeared, in somewhat different form, and in Spanish, in a paper published by Anderson in 2009 in the Boletin de Arqueologia PUCP (Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru), and is used here with permission.

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© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of TennesseeKnoxvilleUSA
  2. 2.Ohio State UniversityNewarkUSA

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